School Parents, Residents Warily Eye 250 Water St. Mercury Test Plan

During public comment on a plan to test for mercury and other subsurface contaminants at 250 Water Street, Rebecca Tekela, the mother of a pre-k child at the Peck Slip School, points to areas outside of the proposed testing zones where mercury might also have been dumped. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 21, 2019

Environmental engineer Michael Komoroske has overseen the cleanup of many toxic waste sites during his 37 years with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). But public scrutiny of the project that lies ahead at 250 Water Street is like no other, he said, speaking to an audience of worried school parents and residents packed into the Southbridge Towers community room last week.

“This is unprecedented in the amount of public interest,” he told the group. “And that’s a good thing. We want people to be engaged.”

Engaged they are, as a coalition of concerned local groups—Southbridge Towers residents, Children First and Save Our Seaport—warily analyze the process that is leading to the eventual cleanup of mercury beneath 250 Water Street, a parking lot and future Howard Hughes Corp. development site. The long process is part of a brownfield cleanup program, which allows a developer to voluntarily remove toxic waste from a site and, in return, be free of liability if contamination is later found there, or if it seeps elsewhere. 

A comment period is beginning on a plan by Langan, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, to investigate the mercury and other contaminants beneath the parking lot, formerly the site of four thermometer factories. That plan, which includes monitoring for possible airborne mercury during the testing, must be approved by the DEC and the state Department of Health. Officials from the agencies call the safety plan uniquely rigorous. But with the Peck Slip School, Blue School and Southbridge Towers facing the lot, many at the meeting of Community Board 1’s Environmental Protection Committee remained skeptical.

Grace Lee, the mother of a 4-year-old at the Blue School and co-founder of Children First, a group of concerned parents, said she wants to see a reduction in the level of airborne mercury vapor that the state deems acceptable. Another Children First activist, Emily Hellstrom, a Peck Slip School parent, questioned what she maintained were financial incentives to cut corners in the testing. “It isn’t as though we haven’t seen organizations and governmental institutions downplay significant toxic threat,” she said. 

Southbridge Towers board member Elaine Kennedy, as well as others, called for tenting over the test sites. And she worried that test borings would undermine the stability of the parking lot, already pocked with sinkholes. Cars driving over the surface only add to the danger, she said. “We believe keeping the parking lot open even during this investigation represents a danger to the safety of this community,” she said.

Officials from the state’s oversight agencies said they will approve the work only after comments have been considered. But so far, they maintained, they are satisfied with Langan’s proposed safeguards, which include air monitors on all four sides of the site. Komoroske called the chance of contamination beyond the site “minimal if at all.”

According to the plan, investigators will first check for mercury vapor in the soil, an indicator of whether there is contamination below. Next, borings up to 30 feet will be made in each of the four locations where the factories once stood, bringing up soil that will be analyzed for mercury and other contaminants. (Previously, mercury was found in one location as deep as 13 or 14 feet.) 

It could be another six months before a plan for the actual cleanup, based on all the data from the investigation, is drawn up. “Any type of cleanup or [Howard Hughes] development,” Komoroske said, “is a long way away.”